Ash Barty at centre of extraordinary tennis anomaly at French Open

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Pictured here, Barbora Krecjikova and Ash Barty hold their French Open trophies aloft.
Barbora Krecjikova and Ash Barty were both first-time major winners at Roland Garros. Pic: Getty

The French Open and first time grand slam winners are a match made in heaven.

When Australia's Ash Barty claimed her maiden grand slam title at Roland Garros in 2019, it was the fourth year in a row that Paris had celebrated a first-time major winner.

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It started with Garbiñe Muguruza beating Serena Williams in the 2016 French Open final, with Jelena Ostapenko's triumph coming the following year.

Then in 2018, Simona Halep broke her grand slam title drought after being beaten by Ostapenko the previous year.

Barty was the French Open women's champion in 2019, with Poland's Iga Swiatek becoming the nation's first ever grand slam singles winner the following year.

Over the weekend, Barbora Krejcikova became the sixth consecutive first-time major winner at Roland Garros after beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in the women's singles final.

The Czech star then backed it up by winning the doubles title with compatriot Katerina Siniakova - becoming the first woman since Mary Pierce in 2000 to win both trophies at Roland Garros.

“Why is it happening? Why so many players are (debut) Grand Slam champions here? I don’t know,” Krejcikova said after her victory over Pavlyuchenkova at Court Philippe Chatrier in the singles final. 

“But I’m happy that I’m part of them.”

Contrast what's been happening at the French Open with how many first-time winners there have been in the last six editions of the other majors.

The US Open has seen four such instances, with three at the Australian Open and zero first-time winners at Wimbledon - which gets underway at the end of the month.Czech

Here's another recent trend Krejcikova is part of: From the start of the Open era in 1968 through 2016 — nearly an entire half-century — there were zero unseeded women's singles champions at the clay-court major.

Since 2017, though, three of the past five French Open winners were not seeded: Ostapenko was ranked 47th when she won, Swiatek 54th and Krejcikova 33rd.

Pictured here, women's French Open doubles champions Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova.
Czech compatriots Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova took out the doubles title at the French Open.

'Crazy, random' French Open in 2021

Some plausible reasons could be used to explain the anomaly, such as the COVID-19 pandemic making everything a little more out of the ordinary during the past two editions of the tournament, held just eight months apart. 

That also could help explain why there were six first-time Grand Slam quarter-finalists — including Krejcikova — for the first time at a major in the Open era, and four first-time semi-finalists for just the second time.

“This was a crazy, random kind of French Open, wasn’t it?” Chris Evert, who won seven of her 18 major singles title at Roland Garros in the 1970s and 1980s, said in a telephone interview.

There’s no dominant figure on red clay right now, the way Evert was in her day or the men's game has seen with Rafael Nadal.

And there’s no truly dominant, all-surface superstar in women’s tennis at the moment — the way Williams was at the height of her powers.

But the main reason might just be the red clay itself, which can be something of an equalizer between opponents and lessens the effect of the power that works so well on swifter surfaces.

“You can’t get overpowered on a clay court as much as you can on a grass court or a hard court. ... So that brings in another style, with consistency and defensive tennis and running balls down. Players have more time to set up for the ball and meet their targets or to just retrieve balls and still be in the point," Evert explained. 

“Serena is like the only player in the last, really, 15 to 20 years who has been able to blast opponents off the clay courts. She was a great clay-court player because she had the offense and defense in her prime.”

That's why Evert expects a smaller group of title contenders as Grand Slam tennis moves to the grass of Wimbledon.

Past champions such as Williams or Muguruza or Petra Kvitova, a two-time winner at the All England Club, can take advantage of the slickness of the courts there.

“The serve is a big plus on grass, whereas on clay it’s a little bit neutralized. I mean, Barbora didn’t win the French Open with her serve,” Evert said. “But other players can win Wimbledon with their serve.”

with AP

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